NBA Finals – Heat vs Thunder: 5 Keys to the Series

It’s not often in an NBA finals where the two greatest players in the world are playing on opposing teams let alone playing the same position, but that’s what we have been gifted with this years finals, as the Scoring machine Kevin Durant and his Thunder team match up with the ‘Freight train’ Lebron James and the Heat. It’s a salivating prospect, and with both of these teams stars, still very much in their prime, we could be getting treated to this series for the next decade. Here are the 5 keys to the remainder of the series.

1. Russell Westbrook’s decision making

Let me just make something abundantly clear, Russell Westbrook is a fantastic point guard. My criticism doesn’t occur because he’s a terrible player who needs to dramatically improve, this is just one aspect of his game that needs to be slightly improved to ensure that he can maximise his contribution for Oklahoma City.

Let me hit you with some stats. In game 1 Russell Westbrook went 10-24 for 27 points with 11 assists. In game 2 he went 10-26 for 27 points with 7 assists. Now if you were to analyse both of those stat-lines without any contextual knowledge, you would find very little disparity between the two games. And yet he only draws criticism from Game 2, the game in which his team was defeated, even though his performances were essentially identical apart from slightly fewer assists. Now this isn’t me defending Westbrook, this is me saying, that this has been a problem with Russell Westbrook for far too long now. So Why must it take a Thunder loss, to make people realise that, that is the case?

And that’s not even the worst part about this. In both games, Westbrook took more shots than Kevin Durant, who has only taken 20 shots per game, at a much higher field goal percentage. Kevin Durant, You know, that scoring machine who has been essentially unstoppable in the play-offs so far. Come on Russell, you are a very talented point guard who is at his best when you are using your athleticism to drive to the basket, not pulling up to take Jumpers. Drive to the basket, if the rim is being defended, kick it out to a Kevin Durant or whoever, on the wing. If he does that, the Thunder instantly get a significant increase in production from not only the point guard position but also their entire team.

2. Dwayne Wade’s continued Production

When Lebron James joined the Miami Heat, it was for one reason only, to win championships. He knew during the 08 Celtics series that he couldn’t carry a team on his own, he would need numerous pieces in place to help him achieve his main goal. So when he joined up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, that was exactly what he was expecting. Unfortunately, Chris Bosh has been injured for almost the entire playoffs and Dwayne Wade’s production has been rapidly declining, thus Leaving Lebron to carry a Heat team that he joined in the first place, to avoid that exact scenario.

But now Chris Bosh has returned and has almost instantaneously emerged as his All-Star self and Dwayne Wade finally had a big game, in Game 2. Guess what? The Heat won. Now it’s time for Dwayne Wade to continue that production level, because if that continues and Lebron continues to put up 30 points per night and SHANE BATTIER is shooting 70% from 3-point range, the Heat are almost unstoppable.

3. Lebron James vs Kevin Durant

THE story of Game 2, was Kevin Durant getting into foul trouble, and that was for one reason alone, Lebron James. A lot of people have been anticipating this finals series because of this very-matchup and if a theme has been established from the first two games, it’s that whoever gets the better of this matchup generally secures the victory for his team.

In Game 1, Durant blew Lebron out of the water in the 4th quarter, and in Game 2 Lebron returned the favour. In game 2, Lebron took it upon himself to guard Durant, and his incresed aggression ensured that Durant got into very early foul trouble. Did it ultimately affect the outcome of the game? Maybe not, as Durant was very sensible with the way in which he handled playing almost the entire 4th quarter with 5 fouls, but it must have been in the back of his mind.

And even the defining shot of the game with 10 seconds left on the clock was defined by this crucial match-up. Durant seemingly had the advantage over Lebron who seemingly fouled Durant, before Durant missed the easy shot. Yes it should have been a foul, but Durant still should have made the bucket. Then with 5 seconds left on the clock, Lebron hit two CLUTCH free-throws to secure the victory for his team. In Game 3, I expect another game that replicates the close nature of this one. Ultimately it is going to come down to which one of these two superstars gets the better of his rival. Everything so far has been pointing towards a series decided by a Game 7, and if we get to see these two go at it for four more games, then count me in.

4. The Battle of The Role Players

I feel like I am being highly disrespectful by referring to James Harden as a role player, but for the purpose of this point, I am going to go along with it. Usually when James Harden comes off the bench and ignites his offense, The Thunder win the game. In Game 2 James Harden put up 21 points, so you would expect the Thunder to win right? But they didn’t. And that’s because the Heat role players managed to match the performance of James Harden. Shane Battier continued his unbelievable resurgence with 17 points, shooting 5-7 from 3-point range, and the Heat won the game.

Shane Battier scored 17 points in Game 1 aswell, so Why did that not play a contributing factor to a Heat Win? Because the Thunder ‘bigs’ showed up in a major way. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison combined for 23 rebounds and 8 offensive rebounds most of which came off the bench with Nick Collison having a massive impact. He had 5 of the offensive rebounds, and unsurprisingly the Thunder’s ability to crash the board was one of the main reasons why the Thunder came away with the victory.

Expect the same to happen for the rest of the series. Both team’s role players are going to have to step up because whoever gains the advantage, is more than likely going to contribute to a victory for their team.

5. The Coaches

This has been a very well-coached series so far. BUT CHRIS, ERIC SPOELSTRA IS COACHING, YOU HATE THAT GUY!!” I have admittedly, been very harsh on Spoelstra throughout his time as the Heat coach, but it was for good reason. But in Game 2, he finally did something that he hadn’t done for his entire time as the Heat Coach, he made fantastic adjustments.

He finally decided to start Chris Bosh which was a good decision albeit way too late, thus spreading the floor for players like Dwayne Wade and Lebron James to drive to the rim. And what do you know.. Dwayne Wade had one of his best performances of the playoffs so far. But that’s not where it ended, as the entire complexion of the heat’s half-court offense adapted, with multiple pick and rolls being run through Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. This also links in with the Chris Bosh move, as by having a big that can shoot jumpers or drive to the basket, you immediately make it easier for those pick-and rolls to work efficiently. And with those changes, the Heat secured a victory. Now Spoelstra has to continue to make those adjustments, if he wants his Heat team to secure victory.

A guy that hasn’t drawn as much criticism for his coaching is Scott Brooks, who has done a fantastic job in Oklahoma City. And it was once again a major contributing factor in why his team won Game 1, and also came very close to making a comeback in Game 2. With Game 1, he recognized that James Harden was having an off-night and that his bigs (plus Thabo Sefolosha) were having massive games. So instead of reverting back to his usual ‘small ball’ in the fourth quarter, he played his defensive lineup. This allowed Sefolosha to continue to contain Lebron James, where on numerous occasions he was able to give Lebron very difficult looks and it also allowed his team to continue to dominate the glass, resulting in a major turn-around as the Thunder continued to put up big points (thanks to Kevin Durant) whilst his team still managed to restrict the Heat’s offense very effectively.

Even in defeat, Brooks did a fantastic job considering the start his team made. In the fourth quarter, down by double-figures, the Thunder’s star was on 5 fouls. But instead of subbing him out of the game, Brooks recognised that his team wasn’t going to get back in the game, with his star on the bench for the majority of the quarter, so he decided to put his trust in Kevin Durant, and played him for the entire fourth quarter. The end result? Kevin Durant went off, reducing the lead to as little as 2 points before a bit of unfortunate luck on a foul call ultimately resulted in defeat. In game 3, Brooks is going to have to keep adapting, to ensure his team has the best possible chance to succeed.

So if you have learnt anything from this article, I think we can all agree… This series is going to be fantastic. That is all.

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Lebron Has a Decent Game As The Heat Tie The series

Usually referring to a game as ‘must-win’ comes only during an elimination game. Usually that would be the only scenario in which I would refer to a game as must-win, but last night during the Pacers Heat game 4, the Miami Heat were in a must-win situation. The Heat may not have been eliminated with a defeat, but they would have been down 3-1, meaning they would of had to win three straight to even advance to the conference finals. Would that have been possible with Chris Bosh active? Probably, but the Heat wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place if Chris Bosh had not been injured. But without Bosh, without the man who the Heat run their entire pick and roll game through, I very much doubt a Heat team which is effectively a 2-man team would have been able to last seven games, let alone being able put in consistently high quality performances that would ensure a series victory. So let me emphasise this, Game 4 was must-win for the Heat.

And with must-win games comes high pressure situations. So you would have expected Lebron James to have had a poor game right? Because lets face it, whenever Lebron is faced with a pressure situation, he crumbles right? But no, Lebron James displayed exactly why he is the MVP with a stat line, unprecedented in the past 25 years. Seriously when was the last time anybody came close to a 40 point, 18 rebounds and 9 assist game? An incredible all-round display of sheer dominance.

This is not hyperbole, this is not reactionary. Ever since he joined the heat, Journalists and fans alike have been waiting for Lebron to ‘explode’ and have a Cleveland esque game, but last night he did that and more. I used the stat line to support my argument, because there is physical, undeniable evidence that it happened, but that was really only the aesthetics of what made last nights performance so tremendous, because last night, Lebron James achieved something that Kobe Bryant could never do, he played team ball.

If the 1st half emphasised anything, it was that Lebron could not carry the Heat on his own. He was having his best performance of the seasons with 19 points and  essentially serving as Miami’s entire offense, and yet the Heat still trailed by 8 at the end of the half. And Lebron knew that he couldn’t carry the team, he knew that he needed Dwayne Wade to get out of his slump, so what did he do? He kept feeding the ball to Wade, trying to get him out of his funk and with 40 seconds left in the half, the entire complexion of the game changed, as Lebron James pinpoint pass, allowed Wade to put home an easy dunk.

You may think that was just a typical two point play, but if you look back on last night, you will realise that, that one play served as the spark that ignited not only Dwayne Wade, but the entire Heat team. Wade hit seven consecutive field goals, Lebron continued his dominance, and when both are at the top of their game (which they were in the second half, last night) they are not only the most unstoppable force in the league, they inspire their team mates as well, and that was none more evident than in Udonis Haslem’s fourth quarter.

A man who has been plagued with injuries the past couple of seasons, and up until this point, had still failed to re-discover his form. But during that fourth quarter, Haslem’s mid-range game returned, which has been the foundation of his success over the years, and with it came four crucial field goals, ensuring the Heat maintained a comfortable lead. The Heat need their bench players to step up, Haslem did it last night,  and if some of the other bench guys step up, suddenly we will be looking at a completely different team.

And whilst Lebron James was playing team ball, two nights ago in Staples center, during game 4 of the Thunders-Lakers series, Kobe Bryant kept trying to play hero ball, then after the game when the Lakers had slumped to a 3-1 series deficit, that same Kobe Bryant blamed Pau Gasol for the defeat. And even though, admittedly, Gasol was having a terrible game, Kobe never attempted to get him out of  that slump, instead he shot his jumpers, he ran his isolations and Kobe continued to be his brilliant self, but at the expense of having a fantastic performance, he forgot the very essence of Basketball. Because, no matter what criticism you have of Lebron James’ ‘clutchness'(I have had my fair share in the past), you cannot argue with the fact he is a team player.

I have come to realise that the term ‘clutch’ is so over-excessively mis-used, and is often mistaken for simply hitting a game winning shot. However that is only one scenario in which you are clutch, because being ‘clutch’ happens when you make big plays, when your team needs you the most. Lebron James consistently made big plays for his team last night, Lebron James was clutch for 45 minutes.